Fairy Pipers

Late yesterday morning, I heard the song of a Prairie Warbler from a shrubby, weedy patch of small pines and tall grass on a corner in our neighborhood. It was the first time I’ve heard one this season. Then today, another Prairie Warbler sang just across the street from our house, in the grass, shrubs and small pines that cover the one remaining vacant lot in our cul de sac. I could hear it whenever I stepped outside, all day long – a thin, buzzy zee-zee-zee-zee-zee-zee, with notes going up the scale.

I didn’t see either one, but was happy to hear them and to know they’re around – small yellow birds with olive-yellow heads, bright yellow breasts and faces, dark streaks along the sides, and dark streaks through and under their eyes. Their backs are subtly touched with reddish-orange streaks. They’re fun to watch, and are known for often bobbing their tails.

It’s impossible to capture in words the delicate, nuanced quality of a Prairie Warbler’s song. The first time I heard it, I thought it sounded like a buzzy, miniature pipe going up a scale. It has a light, airy, but elusive quality that – like so many birdsongs – perfectly reflects the habitat it prefers, which isn’t exactly prairies at all, but “early successional” habitat – the weeds, shrubs, and small trees that grow up in an old field or cleared area. Once the trees have grown large enough to create woods – or when the land is developed – the prairie warblers no longer nest there.

We have a lot of areas like that here in the South, where so much of our land has been abused, though many these old fields are being developed now, and there are fewer and fewer of them. For the first few years when we lived in this neighborhood, I used to see Prairie Warblers regularly, especially in an undeveloped area just outside our subdivision. Unfortunately, the ones I’m hearing now are probably just passing through, because most of the areas where they used to nest have been developed or cleared out during the past few years, leaving only small patches here and there of the weedy, shrubby habitat they need.

Prairie Warblers are listed on the National Audubon Society’s WatchList as a species of concern because their populations are declining throughout most of their range in North America, probably because of habitat loss due to development, and to the natural succession of shrubby habitat to forest.

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